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Why a manifesto?

Now you might wonder why, the subtitle of this book In Defense of Food is A Manifesto. I want to speak for a moment about the politics of this. Why did I call it a manifesto? I did because I was trying to reach a very large audience in America who are perhaps more concerned about their personal health than sustainable agriculture or food, because “I’ve heard enough of your preaching to the choir.

I was trying to go beyond that in this book. And it’s an invitation to the whole community to join a movement that’s right now renovating the American food system. If everybody sought out real food, whole food, cooked it themselves, ate it with friends and family, think how much would change in this country. You’d have a mass exodus from the fast-food outlet and the supermarket.

Farmers could start growing real food again, not industrial raw materials and commodity products made of corn and soy. We would expand the market for alternatives vastly.

And here’s the missing link about how foods work: It turns out that what is best for our health is best for the health of our agricultural community. It really is a win-win. What agriculture needs is to diversify, and what we need to do as eaters is diversify, to eat many different real foods, not the 45,000 products in the supermarket that we’ve learned how to squeeze out of corn and soy.

Sir Albert Howard, the original founder of organic agriculture, was writing 60 years ago, and he said, the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal, and man is one great subject. You cannot separate these things. And we have a great deal of evidence to suggest that the way we grow food has a lot do with how healthy it is. That foods grown in healthy living soil are more nutritious, even by the nutritionist caveats.

What does this mean? It means that our personal health is not bordered by our bodies but is linked, depends upon, the health of the whole food chain of which we are a part. We can’t go off and fix this and find personal salvation by adjusting the nutrients.

Now this expansion of the concept of health and food extends to our families and communities too. That’s why how we eat and where we shop matters almost as much as what we eat. Are we shopping at the farmers market? This has become the new public square. People have 10 times more conversations at the farmer’s market than they do in the supermarket. They’re becoming really vital parts of the community all across the country.

Are we cooking real food and eating it with our families? There is no greater predictor of a healthy diet, regardless of class, than whether you cook regularly or not. They studied women in North Carolina, and they found that, rich or poor, the predictor of a healthy diet is cooking.

So shortening the food chain, taking back control of our food, is the best thing we can do for the health of our families, the health of our bodies, the health of our communities. Health is not a question of good nutrients and bad, magic bullets or pills — that’s the nutritionism approach. Rather it consists of a set of relationships between people, between our bodies and the other species on which we depend, and between the animals and the soil, all of which supports our food chain.

Food is not a product, we need to stop thinking of it as a product. It is less a pile of nutrients than a relationship between species and people and the food chain.

This isn’t news, you know. Sir Albert Howard knew it 60 years ago. Wendell Berry knew it in the ’70s. And I’ll leave you with a quote written by Wendell Berry in 1977: We must never forget “that our land passes in and out of our bodies, just as our bodies pass in and out of our land; that as we and our land are a part of one another, so are all who are living as neighbors here, human, plant and animal, are a part of one another, so cannot possibly flourish alone.”